Flashback to exactly one year ago. I sat at my desk, staring at one of the blank pages in my notebook. I had just refilled the ink on my fountain pen (yeah, I’m that type of writer) and needed to s…
Flashback to exactly one year ago. I sat at my desk, staring at one of the blank pages in my notebook. I had just refilled the ink on my fountain pen (yeah, I’m that type of writer) and needed to start drafting out my thesis project.
The year before had been a tough one. I had shared a part of a novel I wanted to revise and use as my thesis, but that book didn’t work out.
I archived it.
That set me back a whole novel. I had 3 quarters to write the book, revise the book, submit the book to my advisers, and then revise the book. At least, that was the goal. Problem was that I had nothing to go on with. It was me versus the blank page.
To be honest, this is one of the hardest parts of being a writer for me. Getting the first draft is so hard, and it’s not just because of a lack of ideas. There are too many things that block me. If it’s not the mentioned lack of ideas, it’s having way too many, anxiety, pressure, energy, and who knows what else.
In that particular case, I had a severe case of anxiety and pressure, which I overcame by just writing, but that’s not applicable to every case. And, to be honest, it will probably not help anyone for me to say, “just write.”
Yet, that’s the advice I always see. People say, “just write the first draft!” and “you can fix it later!”
Let me say I’ve tried that, and that was what put me in the whole “write your thesis in a few quarters” predicament. A year before that, I wrote the novel Jack Meredith (which I’ve retitled Ghosts of Men). I wrote it in two months, an attempt to “just get it done.” I didn’t really plot or really think too much about it. I ignore grammar for the most part, and I even managed to “turn off the inner editor.”
Well, that didn’t work. The novel, even though I liked several chapters and scenes, lacked some fundamental aspects of a good story. As a first draft, it wasn’t very good.
But, what did I do wrong?
Now, a few years later, I think I finally have a bit of an answer.
Ask any one writing teacher or literary author: what matters most in a story? They will answer “character” as if it were a universal truth.
When I wrote that first draft, I focused on the character, putting them on crazy situations and seeing how they react. It was fun as heck to write, and probably even more fun to come up with the different events.
But, writing a first draft and focusing on character killed the plot. I had no idea where the actual story was going, and had I really continued writing that book, I’d probably end up with a 1k page colossus that would go unpublished for many years.
So, back to the question. What did I do wrong?
I focused on something that didn’t matter much for the first draft. That is not to say character must be ignored though (please keep that in mind).
After writing two more novels (and working on a third) since then, I’ve come to realize that there’s a priority in the craft.
Story and plot are extremely important.
When I started focusing on these two, and writing characters around them, then I realized I started having drafts I could work with. Think of it this way. A novel needs a framework. Think of them…as blueprints or the foundation of a building. That’s plot. Characters are the people who are going to work in that building.
Of course, that building must be designed for the characters. If the characters don’t fit, you’ll have issues. There are, of course, standards when it comes to construction. However, you can’t build around a person either. You take those standards, make the building, then get the people inside.
Then, those people decorate the building from the inside. That’s when story is born.
If you write something without a blueprint, you might end up with rubble around a very interesting person. And that…well you can’t fix that. You’ll end up having to clear out all of the rubble and rebuild. That means rewrites and so much more.
When you plot out and have a sense of direction, you end up with a building. If the characters don’t like the building, they redecorate. The story blends into the building, and everyone is happy.
I guess what I’m trying to say, metaphors aside, is that a first draft must be plotted out and then built. To start writing that draft without thought is dangerous in the long game. I’m not saying it’s impossible to write a book that way, it’s just a whole lot harder.
I know this doesn’t completely answer the question “how do you get the first draft done” completely, but that’s because it is a loaded question. So, I give a first step. Plan it out. It will help you know where to go with the writing.
When I wrote my thesis, I decided to fill out that notebook’s pages with plans and outlines. I actually have about three outlines (yes, the blueprints change as you build the building, but that’s because you encounter things with the construction, character changes and story development came in during revision). I have character summaries and world development notes. I wrote a “treatment” for the novel too. And ultimately, that’s what allowed me to write 95k in two months, all of which I revised over the next two quarters for my final project.
Had I not planned it out, that first draft wouldn’t exist. And yes. There’s tons of other things at work during the actual drafting and revision I did not mention. Story and characters are extremely important too, but trust me. Those blueprints matter. They matter a lot.